On Friday, the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) released a Special Report on coffee leaf rust and food security in Central America.
Yesterday, I published this comment on the report and its (troubling) content.
Beginning today, I will ask colleagues working in the coffelands in Central America to weigh in on the report and the current situation there, beginning with the countries FEWS NET believes to be at greatest risk. First up: Guatemala.
Daniel McQuillan is an agroforestry specialist based in Guatemala who has focused on little besides coffee leaf rust since the current epidemic started during the 2012/13 crop year. He is, in short, well-positioned to respond to the FEWS NET report and provide an update on CLR in Guatemala.
He largely validate the content of the Special Report.
He provides one clear example of the “negative coping strategies” alluded to in the FEWS NET report–the story of a smallholder who sold a brand new depulper to get needed cash, a measure that will help today and hurt tomorrow.
He points out that the official statistics on CLR losses are not generally disaggregated by farm size or farmer income, meaning they obscure the disproportionate impact of CLR on the poorest and most vulnerable farm families.
He refers to a challenge we are facing in Guatemala that we are also seeing in our work in Colombia–providing effective support for farmers trying to balance considerations of disease resistance, productivity, cup quality and income in selecting which coffee varieties to plant in response to CLR.
Finally, Daniel calls urgently for support for farm diversification.
- What were your general reactions to the special report that FEWS NET released last week?
I think the report is an impressive summary of the problems Central American coffee farmers have faced over the past two years and the obstacles which continue to challenge them. These obstacles include a C price which is unlikely to rise much above the cost of production, the continued presence of widespread coffee leaf rust, and the persistent lack of additional sources of income for smallholder coffee producers.
- Does the FEWS NET report ring true based on your experiences on the ground at the intersection of coffee leaf rust and food security?
For the most part, the report mirrors what I have seen on the ground in Guatemala over the past year. I think it is interesting that the FEWS NET report is more focused on pickers and migrant laborers as the most vulnerable group whereas the UN World Food Program report on Guatemala released last year suggested that small producers are the most vulnerable.
- Is there something in the report that diverges from what you are seeing or hearing, or something the report doesn’t address that you think is essential to understand how things are playing out in Guatemala?
I think the data on coffee rust losses fail to capture the severity of the problem for smallholder producers. The numbers on yield losses and rust incidence levels are macro level statistics which are heavily skewed by larger farmers who tend to have lower rates of incidence and fewer losses than smallholders. This report–and reporting on CLR more generally–fail to present disaggregated data on smallholders. Our data indicate that the gap is quite large. Whereas the report indicates that Guatemala will have losses of around 6 percent this year, our numbers on the small producers we work with are closer to 30 percent. Some of the smallest producers we work with have had no yield/harvest this year, as a result of massive losses to CLR and their decision to stump all their remaining trees. These farmers have been dependent on a few days of coffee picking on the area’s farms, borrowing from neighbors, and selling off assets. One farmer sold a brand new depulper he received as part of a project.
- The report makes passing mention of rust-resistant coffee varieties—something I know that has been an important part of your efforts to help farmers respond to CLR. What role do you see those varieties playing as part of a comprehensive response to CLR, and how have the farmers you work with responded to them?
We know that farmers need to carefully consider all aspects of their production system in selecting a coffee variety–altitude, hours of sunlight, shade management, etc. We have worked on our rust response with a mix of traditional varieties and resistant hybrids, distributing Catuai seed for higher-elevation lots and Sarchimor at elevations of 1000 m and below. In our experience, smallholder farmers who can access resistant varieties tend to choose them over traditional varieties. One important factor in that decision is that the majority of small producers continue to sell their coffee to intermediaries, earning no quality pricing differential. This undermines the case for planting traditional varieties in the name of improved quality.
- What else is needed, perhaps beyond improved access to qualified coffee agronomy, to position farmers to be more resilient in the face of CLR and other threats?
The lack of diversification of smallholder coffee producers remains troubling, and perhaps more troubling is the lack of concrete diversification options emerging. CRS has recently completed a Market Feasibility Study focused on smallholder farmers to identify on a few potential agroforestry diversification crops–tree crops like macadamia, nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon that can help coffee farmers diversify without razing forests. In the coming months, CRS will share this report with other stakeholders in Guatemala. We hope that actors from multiple sectors–farmers, government, non-profits, lenders–will join this conversation and, more importantly, the effort to provide producers with information and support they need to begin to diversify their systems.
“The lack of diversification of smallholder coffee producers remains troubling” –
Yes indeed. After the previous price crisis there was a lot of hand-wringing about diversification and a whole project on it by CFC/ICO, executed by NRI. Nothing much happened though and then prices started to recover.
It’s a real Achilles Heal for the coffee industry – the legacy issue. How to help farmers move out of coffee when they are not competitive because of a mix of crazy deforestation in some countries and the growing difficulties caused by climate change.
As you note, the diversification challenge is complex. If today’s coffee farmers are to reduce their dependence on income from a crop that seems steadily harder to grow, at least part of the land they convert would be devoted to production for the market. That may mean strategies for productivity, quality and farmer organization every bit as specialized as those for coffee. The alternative is production for consumption, which seems a big step backward. And then there is the environmental question, of course: how to keep coffee farmers from converting coffee forests to grain production, or worse, livestock?